Replacing a garda commissioner won’t resolve ‘embedded dysfunctionality’ in the force

Opinion: Blizzard of controversies suggests it’s time for a rethink of police system

Martin Callinan has been the 19th person to hold the position of Garda Commissioner. One may exclude the former Co Clare IRA commander, Patrick Brennan, who was briefly “elected” to the post by the members of the Civic Guard who mutinied at the Kildare Depot in 1922.

Of the 19 incumbents, a little more than half have made it safely to retirement at full term and without controversy. This stands in stark contrast to the Defence Forces where successive Chiefs of Staff have put in their time without mishap.

To be Commissioner of the Garda Siochana is to live dangerously in career terms. The first Commissioner, Michael Staines, lasted just five months. His successor, Eoin O’Duffy was sacked by de Valera in 1932. More recently, Edmund Garvey was sacked in 1983. His successor, Patrick McLaughlin, was obliged to stand down after it was revealed that the gardaí had tapped journalists’ telephones at the instigation of the Minister for Justice, Sean Doherty. A number of later Commissioners reached the finishing line in a state of scarcely-concealed warfare with their Ministers.

There is a dangerous fault-line where the functions, powers and responsibilities of the Garda Commissioner meet those of the Minister for Justice, with the senior mandarins of the Department of Justice playing a central role in relationships. It is rooted in history and it has never suited the political and administrative establishment to address it in any fundamental way. Thus we have had recurring crises in the Garda Siochana, with failures in policing standards – often related to political pressures – and with senior Garda officers usually taking the fall.

It may now be, with a blizzard of controversies around the operation of the force, that there is to be a fundamental rethink of how the State’s police system operates; a rethink that may go beyond the flawed and timid vision of the 2005 Garda Siochana Act. The Taoiseach has indicated that there is agreement, at least in principle, among the Coalition partners that some form of Garda authority is called for.

Extraordinarily, the Garda Siochana’s model of governance dates back to 1835. In that year, the Under Secretary for Ireland, Thomas Drummond, established the Irish Constabulary on a permanent, centralised basis across the country.

Unlike England, where local police forces were controlled by “Watch Committees,” later constituted as “Police Authorities,” the Irish Constabulary was to be controlled directly by government through an Inspector General who reported to the Under Secretary in Dublin Castle.

This model was adopted simpliciter in 1922 with some cosmetic changes. The functions of the Inspector General were discharged by a “Commissioner”. District Inspectors became “superintendents” and so on. But the Garda Siochana was to be an arm of central government, its chief directly answerable to the Minister for Home Affairs and its senior officers appointed (or removed) directly by the Government.

It was a model that was arguably suited to a fledgling democracy. But it does not meet the needs or the criteria of a 21st-century society in which the task of policing is infinitely more complex than could have been imagined at independence.

The creation of some form of board or authority to stand between the Government and the force has been examined from time to time. In the Sunningdale Communique of 1973 it was agreed that there should be a Garda “authority”. When the Sunningdale proposals fell, it fell too. The Department of Justice was deeply opposed to the idea. No Minister wanted it either. When Michael McDowell promulgated the Garda Siochana Act 2005 as the most progressive policing legislation since the foundation of the State he ruled the idea out once again. Alan Shatter did likewise last year in the Dail.

There is a sustainable argument that a small country should have a single police force with a clear line of accountability to Government. This argument is reinforced when the police are also the State’s primary security service. But the recurrence of crises within the Garda Siochana and the rate of career attrition among those who lead it point to an embedded dysfunctionality that will not be remedied merely by replacing one Commissioner with another within the same structures.

The present structures afford the Commissioner and his senior officers a high degree of immunity from outside scrutiny. It has always been understood that in return for unwavering loyalty, the Minister will shield them even when things go wrong. But this also leaves them dangerously vulnerable to political manipulation. It is a profoundly unequal relationship and we know from the past that not every Minister has possessed the moral probity not to exploit it.

An independent authority or board would afford some 21st century-style transparency to the relationship between policing and government in this State. Some aspects of the Northern Ireland Police Board might be examined. So too might some of the boards or authorities that operate successfully here in the semi-State sector. It is doubtful if there is anything that might be emulated in the recently-created system of regionally-elected police and crime commissioners in England and Wales.

An authority or board would also offer a degree of protection and provide a source of counsel and advice to the individual who holds the often lonely and vulnerable post of Commissioner. Not a few of them in the past have found themselves isolated for one reason or another from the Minister while at the same time undermined by ambitious underlings.

The 2005 Garda Siochana Act gave the appearance of reform but stopped short of real change. The Commissioner has been appointed as accounting officer but he is now obliged by statute to report on a wide range of operational matters to the Secretary of the Department. He and his office are beyond the remit of the Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission (GSOC). District policing partnerships have been established with local authorities but they are essentially discussion groups.

Clearly, there are functions that the Garda Siochana must discharge directly on behalf of the State. And the State must have direct, executive control over the way it discharges those functions. But this is only a part of what a modern police force does on behalf of the community. It is long past time to challenge the Victorian orthodoxy that every aspect of the police force’s work has to be conducted under a cloak of secrecy.

One would not expect the Industrial Development Authority, for example, or RTÉ or An Bord Bia to function without some form of board to counsel, support, guide and – where necessary – challenge their chief executives. Those whom we ask to lead our police force are entitled to similar supports. If they had them, we would almost certainly have a better police service and the Commissionership of the Garda Siochana would be a less dangerous job.

There will be vigorous resistance within the establishment – not least from the civil servants – to ceding any real power to a new authority. It will be a tribute to this Government’s integrity and determination if it turns out to be anything more than window-dressing.

Conor Brady was a member of the Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission from 2005 to 2011. He is a former editor of The Irish Times.